Archive for 2009 February

Venus, the Moon, and the Stars too…

Thanks to Deborah Byrd's great EarthSky science site, it's easy to look out at the night sky and understand what you see…the beauty you'll have to find yourself…

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Global Warming Satellite Crashes

Happened to be observing at Vandenberg Air Force base the launch of a satellite that scientists hoped would answer a huge question about global warming called the OCO, or Orbiting Carbon Observatory. Ten minutes after lift-off, those of us standing in a chilly field in the early morning heard the voices over the loudspeakers at mission control warn that they were "initiating a launch contingency poll."

When translated from engineer-speak, this turned out to mean that the mission's protective nosecone did not come off as planned. Instead of going into orbit, the satellite crashed into the Indian Ocean. Here's my story about it for the Santa Barbara Independent.

They added a nice photo of the launch from the Air Force, courtesy of Andrew Lee.

Taurus-XL-Rocket-Launch-Web_t180
It's a real shame this quarter-billion mission didn't reach orbit, because the satellite had a crucial question to answer. Why is it that sometimes the earth's natural carbon sinks — principally, the oceans and the forests — effectively sop up most of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, both naturally and from the burning of fossil fuels, but some years not?

In the words of Wally Broecker and Robert Kunzig, and their excellent book from last year Fixing Climate: What Past Climate Changes Reveal About the Current Threat — and How to Counter It:

What [Ralph] Keeling's record has consistently showed is that when compared with records of fossil fuel use, only about half the carbon that we are putting into the atmosphere is staying there. The rest must be going into the ocean, as [Roger] Revelle suggested, or into plants on land.

But if you dig a little deeper into this story, you discover two shocking facts. One, as indicated in the quote above, scientists cannot trace how and where this "missing carbon" is being reabsorbed. Being good physicists, they can make calculations and surmises, but they cannot track that missing carbon.

Second, a little known fact, the amount of carbon being reabsorbed by the oceans and the forests of this planet varies greatly from year to year and we don't know why. It's a curious irony, actually. Our emissions of CO2 from the burning of carbon are steadily increasing, and we can chart that increase quite accurately. But our understanding of the natural world's capacity to soak up that excess carbon dioxide is primitive by comparison. 

Here's a graphic that explains this better than any sentence or two possibly could, courtesy of David Crisp, a team leader on the OCO mission. Please note the tremendous variability in the reabsorbtion of CO2 from the atmosphere:

Year to Year Variability in CO2 Uptake

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An Unsurpassed Loveliness

This has been a day of unsurpassed loveliness for yours truly. For thirty years I have wondered, off and on, if I made the right career choice, and suspected perhaps I should have gone into journalism, despite its current woes, for personal reasons. Now it seems as if the universe is giving me a second chance. At a modest local level (as I told my wife, "I'm on track to become the world's oldest cub reporter.").

But how many times does one get a second chance in life? Universe, thank you thank you thank you…

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Why We’re Expecting Too Much of Obama

The most powerful critique of the American way of life in recent years has come from a conservative professor named Andrew Bacevich, who in his book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism absolutely dismantles both the Bush doctrine and the fatuous belief that Barack Obama will fundamentally change the national security state.

It's pretty gloomy stuff, but I can't see the flaw in Bacevich's logic. (Which is based on the work of philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, principally his book Beyond Tragedy.) Because the American people cannot rein in our desires, American presidents are fated to put our military power into ethically indefensible wars against other nations, principally nations with oil assets. And a similar impatience with limits and process has turned our democracy into an enormous, endless popularity contest.

As Bacevich told Bill Moyers:

I think the troubling part is, because of this preoccupation with,
fascination with, the presidency, the President has become what we have
instead of genuine politics. Instead of genuine democracy.

We look to the President, to the next President. You know, we know
that the current President's a failure and a disappoint – we look to
the next President to fix things. And, of course, as long as we have
this expectation that the next President is going to fix things then,
of course, that lifts all responsibility from me to fix things.

One of the real problems with the imperial presidency, I think, is
that it has hollowed out our politics. And, in many respects, has made
our democracy a false one. We're going through the motions of a
democratic political system. But the fabric of democracy, I think,
really has worn very thin.

I love Barack Obama, but this is why I doubt he will be able to bring about fundamental change — because the same public desire to see one man fix all things, means that one man must fix all things, a task not only beyond the capabilties of any individual, but a task we have given him because we won't take responsibility for our own part of the problem.  

It's like what happens when Superman shows up in a story. Once he appears, all the other official good guys — the cops, the public officials, the soldiers — look small and almost useless. Why bother with them? Superman will fix the problem.

We want our President to be Superman. The bigger the challenge, the bigger our hope.

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NASA Satellite Launch Goes Awry: Stolz Attacks Engineers

Yesterday morning at 1:55 a.m., NASA launched a satellite designed to precisely measure flows of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory. Unfortunately the nosecone failed to open as the mission neared orbit, and the satellite crashed into the sea near Antarctica.

Bad news for NASA — and the planet — but an interesting night for yours truly. Never attended a press conference at 5:00 a.m. before. If you're curious, you can see me asking tough questions of emotionally-devastated engineers on NASA TV (link). They called it a "contingency briefing."

Will post the story when it runs tomorrow in the Santa Barbara Independent. For now, here's a snapshot of lift-off…an impressive event, even from four miles away. Within thirty seconds the mission was ten miles high and traveling at 2000 mph.

OCO launch

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Hollywood is Forever

Many years ago, a young student director named Marty Brest made a self-financed movie as a fellow at the American Film Institute called "Hot Tomorrows." The plot cannot be synopsized, but the climax was unforgettable, as the young searcher standing in for Brest himself looked high and low for the meaning of Hollywood, in mortuaries, nursing homes, and old movies on TV. He found the answer in the fact that those it blesses…live forever. It's really that simple.

And for yours truly, the meaning of the Oscars-cast last night can be seen in this image, which perfectly aligns what makes the movies immortal — youth, sexiness, money, and glamour.

Take it away, Alicia Keys….

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Bad News: Methane Release Threatens Planet — Good News: LA Times Still on the Climate Beat

Here's a strange good news/bad news story. This Sunday the top story on the front pages of the Los Angeles Times was a full-scale feature, complete with excellent graphics, on methane released by the softening of the permafrost.

The good news is that the newspaper is still covering the climate beat in a serious way.

The bad news is that the balance in our climate is tipping towards rapid warming.

No point in me encapsulating a first-story; as they say, read the whole thing

But I will make a couple of points. First, I like the way the writer Margot Roosevelt explicitly sourced the metaphor of methane as a "time bomb" to reputable researcher Katie Walter. This is a term of art in the reporting on methane, but folks new to the story may not realize how factual that metaphor is.

Second, I love the personality she allowed us to see in Walter and her story. As Chris Mooney has said more than once, this issue cannot escape the back pages of science reporting until scientists are seen as individuals — and even, in some cases, as "rock stars." Roosevelt makes that happen with Walter.

Plus, here's a video feature featuring the star herself…great work, congrats to all concerned.

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Good News about Stress — Believe It or Don’t

Newsweek may be disappearing from newstands soon, but its medical coverage as of late has been superb. A couple of weeks ago came a story on The Two Sleeps that literally changed my life. (Instead of taking drastic measures to sleep through the night, do what nature suggests — sleep one shift, get up, take care of business, read, whatever — then sleep a second shift when the sleepiness returns.)

Now comes a thoughtful, wry story by Mary Carmichael on why stress in moderate doses may be good for us. To wit:

The stress response—the body's hormonal reaction to danger, uncertainty
or change—evolved to help us survive, and if we learn how to keep it
from overrunning our lives, it still can. In the short term, it can
energize us, "revving up our systems to handle what we have to handle,"
says Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist at UCLA. In the long term, stress
can motivate us to do better at jobs we care about. A little of it can
prepare us for a lot later on, making us more resilient.

Even when it's
extreme, stress may have some positive effects—which is why, in
addition to posttraumatic stress disorder, some psychologists are
starting to define a phenomenon called posttraumatic growth. "There's
really a biochemical and scientific bias that stress is bad, but
anecdotally and clinically, it's quite evident that it can work for
some people," says Orloff. "We need a new wave of research with a more
balanced approach to how stress can serve us." Otherwise, we're all
going to spend far more time than we should stressing ourselves out
about the fact that we're stressed out.

Wonder if Carmichael got on to this story because she was stressed out about losing her job…

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Hard Times, Kind People — What We Need in 2009, Says Lao Tzu

Have been reading a fascinating book about affective science, called Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life

So what, you might say. These are hard times! I can't waste energy on frivolities!

But what if the race amongst us hominids — chimps and people alike — goes not to the biggest, brawniest, and most intimidating, or even the meanest, but to those best able to mediate conflict? To those able to see beyond themselves? What if those who are most concerned with their own survival are often too frightened or timid to take care of others, and thus less useful to the group? What if maximizing self-interest leads to small lives?

More on this soon. But for now, let me quote a lovely poem from the book, by Lao Tzu:

When man is born, he is tender and weak
At death, he is stiff and hard
All things, the grass as well as the trees, are tender and subtle while alive
When dead, they are withered and dried.

Therefore the stiff and the hard are companions of death
The tender and weak are the companions of life
If the tree is stiff, it will break
The strong and the great are inferior, while the tender and the weak are superior. 

And here's an image from an Asian photographer known as photocello called, yes, Tree in the Wind

Treeinthewindbyphotocello

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Oscar Forecasting by Logical Regression

Though he doesn't state his confidence level, super-statsman Nate Silver predicts the Oscar race in the major categories for New York Magazine with a regression analysis and a database thirty years deep.

His logic appears impeccable: for instance, on Best Picture:

Best Picture

Slumdog Millionaire
won all three awards associated with Oscar success: the Directors Guild
Award, the Golden Globe, and the BAFTA. It’s also a serious film, which
the Academy favors. If there’s an upset (which would be a shocker), it
will be Milk; guilt over Prop 8 and the Brokeback snub of ’06 could split the vote, with Boyle getting Director and Milk getting Picture.

To be specific, Silver runs the numbers and concludes that Slumdog has a 99% chance of winning Best Picture, Milk has a 1% chance, and all the other candidates have 0.0 chance.

But the major awards are the easy ones! Try picking the best editing from amongst The Dark Knight, Frost/Nixon, Benjamin Button, Milk, and Slumdog Millionaire.

Regress that, Silver.

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